Anyone seeking a definition of "jazz fusion" needs to look no further than Return To Forever. The seminal group, which is fronted by keyboardist Chick Corea, took the term literally by fearlessly and effectively welding jazz ideals with genres ranging from Latin music (1972's Light As a Feather) and disco (1974's Where Have I Known You Before) to Renaissance-fair prog-rock (1976's gold-selling Romantic Warrior). Along with groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and the Tony Williams Lifetime, Return To Forever helped open minds and pave the way for brave new approaches to both jazz and rock. The group's influence can be seen in the ambitious musicianship of Yes and King Crimson and the modern hip-hop of Dr. Dre and Lupe Fiasco (both of whom have sampled the band's songs on their own tracks).
Each member of Return To Forever possesses an impressive résumé. Before the group's formation in 1972, Corea and drummer Lenny White cut their teeth in the avant-garde ensembles of Miles Davis. (Most notably, Corea's trademark Fender Rhodes chops and White's effortlessly funky drumming can be heard on Davis' historic Bitches Brew album.) After Return To Forever's demise in 1977, Corea collaborated with legends such as Gary Burton, Pat Metheny and Bobby McFerrin (and earned fourteen Grammy awards in the process). Guitarist Al Di Meola and bassist Stanley Clarke were both relatively unknown before joining the group, but they've since launched successful solo careers and are considered highly influential virtuosos of their instruments. Lenny White, who wrote many of Return To Forever's tunes from behind his drum kit, has also released several albums as a band leader.
In honor of the group's summer 2008 reunion tour, White spoke about Return To Forever's legacy in a changing musical climate.
Ryan Wasoba: Now that you've had over a decade of hindsight, what kind of contribution do you think Return To Forever made in the world of jazz?
Lenny White: Well, I don't think we just made a contribution in the world of jazz, I think we made a contribution to the world of music. At that time when we were in our heyday, there was a lot of division among the press that said that this music was jazz and this music wasn't jazz and this music was rock and this music wasn't. Because [Return To Forever] communicated so well, I think that it started to get people into listening to different kinds of music. I know a lot of people that came to our concerts and said that was their introduction into jazz — and they still listen to jazz now because of that. And there were a lot of rock musicians that listened to Return To Forever, and they started to think differently about what they were doing. It was cross-collateralized. You listened to the radio and you heard a lot of different music on one station, and I think we reflected that aspect of the times. It's different now. I think the jam bands are the closest thing now to what we were doing then.
The jam bands seem to be more coming out of rock and just grabbing hints of jazz, though. Do you think a group that is coming out of jazz as much as you were could succeed today?
Well, that's an interesting idea that, if there was a bottle of wine that was made 100 years ago, and you asked if people would buy that bottle of wine today. If it was a quality wine 100 years ago, why wouldn't there be a taste for it today? Is the marketplace or society's values today so fleeting that they wouldn't be able to sustain something that's a classic? I get asked all the time if this music can survive. Well, there's a whole lot of people coming out to see us. [Laughs] The question to me is, what is the music of today? If you're talking about Madonna and Britney Spears, then it's different. Return To Forever is not a boy band, it's a man band. This is music made by real musicians. It's instrumental music, there's no singing, there's no light shows and explosions or stuff like that. It's just music for music's sake. So if you ask me, will that survive today, I'm quite sure that it can, but it's not out there, and it's not exposed on a grand scale like it used to be.
Do you think that the perception of jazz today makes any difference in that possibility of exposure?
As a creative person, it's not a matter to me of how it's perceived. How it's perceived is how the press or the media writes it up, and they define what it is. And there's been a lot of different kinds of transitions. There's this, they call it smooth jazz. They try to say this is hard rock and this is light classical and they try to put everything in these categories.
Well, I think those categories are sort of a necessary evil in talking about music. It's always been hard to put music into words.
Yeah, but most of the time, for this generation, music is put in words. And that's what pop music is. Pop music is a beat and some words. What we're talking about doing is playing melodies and taking solos. And I still do believe that there's a big section of the community that would support it.
Has Return To Forever ever been sampled by a hip-hop artist and become part of the "beat" of pop music?
Sure! Lupe Fiasco used "Romantic Warrior" in one of his tunes ("American Terrorist"). I can't even begin to tell you all the different situations hip-hop artists have used our songs. If it's out there and it's hip, eventually somebody's going to discover it and use it.
How do you feel about hearing your song in that context?
Well, I don't have a problem with it. It's quite obvious that the producers are a little more advanced than the audience they make their beats for, because they've gone and taken the effort to seek out the music and include it in what they do. If the audience would take a chance and listen, they might find something really good in it.
It seems pretty cool that somebody could discover Return To Forever through a Lupe Fiasco song.
Yeah! There are friends of mine that have bought that song and said, "Hey, I recognize that. That's Lenny!" It's kind of interesting, you know?
8 p.m. Tuesday, June 17. Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard. $39.50 to $74.50. 314-534-1111.